On Knife's Edge, every sense must be sharpened

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Greiner-Ferris
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2004

BAXTER STATE PARK, Maine -- Years ago, while studying a map of Maine, I noticed a green area outlined in the far north of the state. I recognized the name, Baxter State Park, as well as Katahdin, the infamous Knife's Edge, the one trail that particularly fascinated me simply for the danger it offered, and the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to go.

It took a while, but last winter, a park ranger called to say my reservation had been approved, and the long-awaited trip was set for June.

On the first day of summer, my friend Vicki and I chucked our packs into the back of the truck and headed north. I was finally going to test myself on the Knife's Edge and climb Katahdin. Or rather, I was going to attempt to climb it. Never assume anything in the mountains. Still, I was looking forward to the chance to try, as Jamling Tenzing Norgay wrote in "Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest " (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), to climb the mountain as if I were climbing into my mother's lap.

It's 5 hours to Millinocket, the gateway to Baxter State Park on Interstate 95. You never drive through foothills; instead, the Katahdin massif rises up from the land, and it's the elevation gain (more than 2,300 feet) as much as anything that makes it a challenging climb. Entering the park, we encountered the beginning of a running joke. In your best Eastern European accent say, "May I see your papers, please?" Just about every ranger you meet wants to see your papers, in this case, your reservation confirmation. We were asked for our papers several times a day, sometimes by the same ranger.

We spent the first night at Roaring Brook Campground, where we parked the truck. It's a busy place, this parking lot at the confluence of trailheads, like a bawdy town at the edge of the wilderness. That night, we slept in the custom of Sherpas, with our feet away from the mountain.

Up early the next day, and in an hour we're on the Chimney Pond Trail toward Katahdin's Great Basin. The trail is 31/3 easy miles, a gradual ascent to Katahdin. Wooden bridges and walkways reminiscent of Middle Earth reinforced our feeling of adventure. The massif itself can be seen suddenly through the trees, and there are dramatic views of the other cirques on the mountain before you exit the trees and enter Chimney Pond campsite (no tents, just lean-tos and a bunkhouse), where the Great Basin's headwall thrusts skyward. From Chimney Pond, there is nowhere to go but up.

Eager to climb and see the territory, we decided to hike the three-quarter mile up the Dudley Trail to see the Pamola Caves. The short hike gave us a good indication of what we were in for the next day. The trail is extremely steep, and even below tree line we jump or climb from one mammoth boulder to the next. The caves aren't true caves, but slab caves -- long, cavernous spaces created between boulders as glaciers settled the huge rocks on top of one another. Some slabs are at least the size of city buses, and one cave was more than 50 feet long.

From an outcropping perched on the side of Pamola, it was easy to see the path of the last glacier that flowed here, which ground out the cirques and scraped and bulldozed the steep-sided valley walls where we crouched.

That night, it poured. Two days before, the Knife's Edge trail had been closed because of ice. I figured the rain would make it too slippery. I went back to sleep.

Seven a.m. and good Lord, what is that noise? I raised my head and saw a red squirrel looking right at me as if to say, "What are you still doing in your bag? There's climbing to do." It gave one more disapproving rip of chattering and headed off, presumably to wake other slackers.

Sure enough, the trail classification for the day was "Class 2: Open, but not recommended for climbing. Weather conditions favorable but changing." That was all I needed. I knew going up the west side of the basin on the Cathedral Trail gave us the chance to bag Baxter Peak without getting trapped on the Knife's Edge.

The Cathedral Trail quickly rises above tree line, and in no time we were treated to spectacular views of the Great Basin. Rain squalls harassed us, but we took our time, enjoying the fact that we finally had made it to Baxter.

In retrospect, something has to be said about the dangers inherent not only on Katahdin, but also anywhere in the outdoors. Three days after we climbed up the Cathedral, two hikers were caught in a rockslide on the same trail. One died. While the boulders on Katahdin are so large you cannot imagine them moving without the use of dynamite, there most certainly is some instability on the mountain. Any mountain.

The Cathedral eventually eases up onto a scree field, then a bit more of a climb before the summit, where we found the usual circus of hikers and climbers one would expect at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

The weather had cleared, and the Knife's Edge stretched to Pamola. Benign cumulus clouds floated in the blue. Hikers eased over to the beginning of the trail, like nervous divers who peer over the edge of the board to judge how far down the water lies. We agreed we hadn't come all this way not to attempt the trail if conditions allowed. Was I nervous? I'd be crazy not to be, on a trail 1.1 miles long that narrows to 4 feet wide in some spots with 2,000-foot drops to either side. But I was excited, too. We set off just after a man had said derisively of a band of hikers halfway across, "My God, look at them out there!"

It wasn't that scary. There definitely were some sticky parts, though, like toward the eastern end where you creep along sideways holding on to low, rocky "handrails" to keep from falling 1,500 feet straight down. Or the point where the trail blazes just disappear. Vicki found them again, but to this day we're not sure where they went, or how we got back on track.

It took us about two hours to reach Pamola, where we descended the Dudley Trail. At first, the descent was easy, and we took our time. Eventually, though, the slope became filled with boulders; the lower we went, the bigger they got. Then into the trees where the blackflies were added to the boulders and we slipped off the mountain, as if we were climbing out of our mothers' laps.

John Greiner-Ferris is a freelance writer in Sherborn.

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